Understanding Twitter’s next phase of growth

Cnet reported yesterday on Twitter saturation at SXSW – with the particular problem being too much traffic on the SXSW hashtag #SXSW:

This year because of the conference’s impressive growth and Twitter’s broader mainstream appeal, it has become almost impossible to find the same value as in the past. I did a search for the “#sxsw” tag on Saturday afternoon and found that there had been 392 tweets with the term in just the previous 10 minutes. That number mushroomed to more than 1,500 in the previous hour.

For those that don’t know Hashtags is a system which enables tracking of in-message tags that Twitterers add to their messages, similar in a way to Flickr photo tags or blog post tags – full description here.

as Alan says this is a bit of a storm in a teacup, as you can get round this problem by using different search techniques.  Further as Twitterati points out this is a ‘quality problem’ that can be innovated around:

All these problems are nice to have because they’re growing pains. The challenge will be creating tools that meet these pains. Two areas that might get a lot of attention in 2009 from third-parties may be noise filters – services that intelligently eliminate inane updates (e.g. remove any mentions about lunch or coffee”) or smarter, easy-to-create groups.

Tweetdeck is already working hard on this, and I’m sure there will be others.

I’m not sure that tools are the only answer though.  The more observant amongst you might have noticed from the LivingSocial widget in my right sidebar that I recently read Lessig‘s Code2.0, a book in which he talks at length about how communities are governed and regulated.  He persuasively argues that for there are four modes of regulation – architecture/code, law, norms and the market (more details here) – Tweetdeck et al are code based solutions to the problem of the too much traffic on Twitter, but the other modalities or regulation (as Lessig would describe them) are also important. 

Norms are already at play with lots of discussion about what is appropriate to Twitter, what is an appropriate frequency of Tweets etc., and as another example there is a section on norms for the use of hashtags on the page I linked to above:

Suggestions and tips 

The use of hashtags is still an emergent phenomena, and as such, etiquette is negotiable, though some have already expressed their distaste for hashtags. 

Used sparingly and respectfully, hashtags can provide useful context and cues for recall, as well as increased utility for the track feature. Used excessively can cause annoyance, confusion or frustration, and may lead people to stop following you. It’s best to use hashtags explicitly when they’re going to add value, rather than on every word in an update. 

A good rule of thumb to follow is to focus on your update first, and only if it quantitatively adds value, to append one-three hashtags. There are no hard and fast rules, but Twitter should continue to be about answering the simple question: “What are you doing” rather than “What tags apply to what you’re doing?”

Market as a force will start to come into play subtly as Twitter gently bends the service towards areas where it can make money.  The recent focus on search could well be an example of that.

To complete the discussion of the four modalities there is the obvious point that I doubt we will see any direct application of law – either as direct regulation from government or ‘policy’ from Twitter (note this is different to Facebook).

It is pretty clear to me that as the community grows something is going to have to change – and as I have written before it is instructive to think of the Twitter community as an emergent system with rules that need to evolve to ensure that the signal to noise ratio is maintained at a sensible level whilst keeping the service growing.

Facebook went through a similar problem when they launched applications – initially apps took off like wildfire but after a while all the application invites became annoying.  FB responded by changing the rules which governed the number of invites that can be sent out, something they were able to do because they operate a closed system.

Because Twitter is such an open system the rules will evolve in a different way.  On the positive side they can let third party developers like Tweetdeck innovate and experiement for them – benefiting from the success of the winners but not suffering from the failure of the losers.  That benefit, however, comes at the cost of a lack of control.  The health of the Twitter community (as with all communities online and offline) is 100% dependent on the rules, and to an extent Twitter will have to stand by and watch what happens to theirs.

UPDATE: Integration with Facebook makes this a much more pressing issue as the volume of messages we have to deal with will rise signficantly

  • azeemazhar

    Seesmic video reply from Disqus.

  • Thanks Azeem – my first video comment!!

    You make some good points. Innovation in the interface will be key – making filters easy and natural to apply whilst maintaining/enhancing the benefits that the service brings. I think there is also a job to be done in explaining how best to use the system – as you say there is a tension between following lots of people and seeing everything that a few people say – a tension which becomes particularly acute if you have realtime searches running.

  • Seesmic video reply from Disqus.

  • Thanks Azeem – my first video comment!!

    You make some good points. Innovation in the interface will be key – making filters easy and natural to apply whilst maintaining/enhancing the benefits that the service brings. I think there is also a job to be done in explaining how best to use the system – as you say there is a tension between following lots of people and seeing everything that a few people say – a tension which becomes particularly acute if you have realtime searches running.

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